On Friday, April 28th the Judicial Council issued its long-awaited decision regarding the July 2016 consecration by the Western Jurisdiction of Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist Bishop. The Judicial Council ruled 6-3 that the act does, in fact, violate the clear language of the Discipline that no “self-avowed practicing homosexual” shall be ordained in the United Methodist Church. They made it clear that because Rev. Oliveto, through her own public statements, as well as her legal status (she has been legally married to a woman since 2014), constitutes being self-avowed and practicing. However, the Judicial Council did not remove her from her episcopal appointment over the Mountain Sky Area. Rather, they referred any action back to the Western Jurisdiction. So, now what?
United Methodist polity, as I understand it, has a separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches of the church. In the United States, law enforcement is located in the executive branch, not the judicial branch. In the same way, the Judicial Council can rule that a certain act is “unconstitutional” but it relies upon the Jurisdiction to exercise their executive authority and declare that her appointment was unlawful. The problem is, they will never do that. The reason is that the statements in the Discipline regarding same sex marriage have always been clear to anyone who knows and understands the meaning of English words. There has never been any real doubt that the intended meaning of the Discipline. It is true that many attempts have been made to find technicalities to get around the Discipline, but everyone knows what it says, which is why so many groups have worked so hard every four years to alter the language. The Western Jurisdiction will continue their disobedience to the Discipline in the post-April 28, 2017 period, just as they have disobeyed it in the pre-April 28, 2017 period.
If this is true, then has anything changed? Yes, something important has changed. We now have an important, legal ruling that we, as a denomination, are in schism. Before April 28th we had individual pastors who defied the Discipline, but now we have an entire jurisdiction of the church in open rebellion against the Discipline. Even when retired bishop Melvin Talbert from the Western Jurisdiction traveled to Alabama in 2013 and in explicit denial of the Discipline and his own ordination vows, performed a same sex marriage he was not formally representing the Western Jurisdiction. Now, the Western Jurisdiction will be officially required to respond to the Judicial Council. If they defy the Judicial Council, then our shared covenant will be legally broken. It has already been broken in practice, but those could be viewed as errant outliers. Such public fiction is now no longer possible. We will be in schism no less than when, in the Roman Catholic church, Rome and France set up rival papacies between 1309 and 1377.
For years, thousands of United Methodist pastors and laity have been discussing whether or not the United Methodist Church should or should not legally separate. Now it seems increasingly clear that this particular fork in the road may have already been taken. Even though I have been praying for and “prescribing” unity, there is a point where the “facts on the ground” may overtake us all. If so, then the only real option we may have in discussing a way forward is to focus on the terms of a separation which has already occurred, rather than keep pretending that our shared covenant remains intact.